Alternative sports: If mud-racing looks too soft for you, how about a spot of shin-kicking?

Never underestimate the British capacity for barminess. Hugh Godwin takes a cautious stroll through the alternative sporting year

There are extreme sports, and then there are extremely silly sports. You can keep your Henley Royal Regatta and your Glorious Goodwood; for the genuinely madcap among Britain's athletic fraternity, the new year is always the season to be nutty.

And what better way to ring in another year of the country's daftest pursuits than this morning's Mud Race in Maldon, Essex? A gruesomely chilly and messy quest to negotiate the slimy currents of the River Blackwater at low tide, it is merely the first in a series of events connected only by their eccentricity and, just as crucially, apparent pointlessness. The Mud Race is the kind of competition which makes the staple of the Christmas Day sports news bulletin - the Peter Pan Cup swim in the Serpentine - seem dull and unadventurous by comparison.

At precisely 11am on the banks of the Blackwater, some 150 competitors will set off to wade or swim through the waist-high, ice-cold water, trudge their way 200 metres through the mud on the opposite bank and then cross back to the finish line. Their hope is to cover themselves in glory. They will certainly get covered in mud.

"It's what we British do," said the race chairman, Brian Olley. "The art is to get to the front, where you have a chance of a clear run. At the back, the mud is churned up and you can get trampled on and buried. I've known the winner complete the 500-metre course in about four minutes. The less fleet of foot can take an hour, and they tell me it's the equivalent of doing a half marathon. As far as I know, we haven't lost anyone yet, but we have a flat-bottomed boat out there just in case."

Thousands of spectators will witness this bizarre crossing of a quagmire. Among the recommendations to competitors are to "wear footwear taped to the feet" - you wouldn't want to leave your £200 Christmas-gift trainers at the bottom of the bog - and, in the same vein, "don't ever wear clothes you want to wear again". Because the mud smells. Horribly.

"Plunging into the river comes as such a shock to the system your fillings nearly fall out," said James Wills, who took part two years ago, "but it's then that the unfathomable misery begins. While the super-athletes sprint over the mud, those of us with a commitment to smoking Marlboro Lights are left to crawl through it."

Wills is the editor of a local newspaper, the Braintree & Witham Times, and intends to come back for more today, albeit with trepidation. "I was originally concerned about being impaled on the wreck of a Thames barge, but that would have been a relief, as it would have been a justifiable excuse to give up," he said. "Occasionally, you pass other competitors lying there like corpses but by that stage you have no real hesitation crawling over them, as at least it is firm ground."

The Chelmsford Aqua Club have competed in rubber suits; one gentleman went round in an office suit and survived. John Crellin has taken part more than once, and has this advice: "If you happen to be super-fit and extra-light, go for it. On the other hand, going along on all fours may not be dignified, but it certainly gets you there and back."

Two yellow placards stuck in the mud bear the word "Finish" where, wouldn't you know it, a quintessentially British cold shower awaits.

There has been an attempt to trace a link between the race and a band of raiding Vikings who may have got bogged down in this part of eastern England centuries ago. What is more certain is that, in 1973, a couple of customers at the Queen's Head pub were grumbling at the guv'nor for a free drink. "He told them there was a free one for them over on the saltings [saltwater marshes], across the mud," said Olley. "The beers made them feel fitter than they were."

It soon developed into a dash to drink a pint on the other side of the river and return. Today, the alcoholic element has been removed. Indeed, the organisers - the Rotary Club and the Maldon Lions - have thus far spurned the advances of a brewery offering sponsorship. In the past three years they have raised more than £40,000 for charity.

If a mud race fails to float your boat, the year skittles on happily with a marbles championship in West Sussex and coal-carrying in Yorkshire. On Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in Ashbourne in Derbyshire they stage the mass, moving brawl that is the local version of football. A hand-painted, cork-filled ball is heaved and pulled, usually at a ferociously slow pace, through the roads, fields and even the riverbed of the town, as the Up'ards and Down'ards compete to register an all-too-rare goal: last year's scoreline was nil-nil. But there are similar versions of the game across the country, in Alnwick, Sedgefield and Haxey Hood, Lincolnshire, among other places, not to mention France and, famously, Florence in Italy.

So a much better contender for the eccentric Briton's spring classic is cheese-rolling in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds. On the late May Bank Holiday, competitors position themselves at the summit of Cooper's Hill, just off the Stroud-Cheltenham road, ready to chase a 7lb double Gloucester down a scarily precipitous slope. Cuts and bruises are commonplace, and the cheese always wins, but the first human to the bottom wins the cheese; second and third get a small cash prize. Meanwhile, the bumps and hollows and almost vertical gradients of the 250-metre plunge put onlookers in danger of collision, either with a competitor tumbling out of control or a flying cheese, a threat which is not to be sniffed at.

There is no let-up in summer and autumn. August's well-established and self-explanatory bog-snorkelling in Wales could be your cup of gunk, or take your pick from Easter egg-rolling, snail-racing, toe-wrestling, worm-charming and that old That's Life speciality, gurning. There is even, every November in the Cumbrian village of Santon Bridge, a contest in lying - the telling of untruths as distinct from the act of taking up a prostrate position - though clearly this is more a mental than a physical activity.

For athleticism with more of a kick (literally), try purring at the Cotswold Olimpicks in Chipping Campden. More popularly known as shin-kicking, it has been described as an English martial art, in which participants square up like wrestlers, each holding the other's collar, with the aim of bringing the opponent to the ground solely by means of applying foot to foreleg. "You give them a good thwack," advised one successful shin-kicker. "But not with your toes, you need to use the inside of your foot."

Maybe it is such cold analysis of the tactics which helps explain the fascination of all these excuses for passing the time, raising money for good causes and, often as not, getting drunk as a skunk. The more you investigate them, the more you are engulfed in a nebulous cloud of honest-to-goodness common sense mixed with utter insanity. The cheese-rollers' website, for instance, notes that when the country was suffering wartime rationing, "a wooden substitute was used that contained a token piece of cheese". See? All very sensible.

So here's to the cheese-rollers, the shin-kickers and the Maldon mud-racers. Best of British to the lot of you.

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